Audit: Nearly 275 in Indiana await first VA visit

June 9, 2014

An audit of Veteran's Affairs hospitals and clinics nationwide found that 273 Indiana patients had been waiting for initial appointments at facilities in Indianapolis and northern Indiana 90 days or more after requesting them.

The audit, based on a snapshot of the VA system on May 15, also found that about 230 others in Indiana who enrolled in the VA health care system over the past 10 years have apparently fallen through the cracks and never received appointments. That includes 173 at the Indianapolis VA hospital.

"This is just an example of how widespread the problems were," said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion's national headquarters in Washington.

The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network following reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center

The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.

Auditors reviewed 731 sites nationwide and found that the agency's complicated appointment process created confusion among schedulers and supervisors and that a 14-day goal for seeing first-time patients was unattainable. The VA has since abandoned that goal.

Both the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis and the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, which has campuses in Fort Wayne and Marion, had much longer waiting periods for new patients than for established patients.

At the Indianapolis facility, which was flagged for a follow-up review, the new patients waiting to see a primary care physician waited an average of nearly 54 days, far above the 2.6-day average wait faced by established patients.

New patients seeking the same care at the northern Indiana facilities waited nearly 32 days, compared with about 3 days for established patients.

Waits for new patients seeking specialists were lower at Roudebush, at about 32 days, but jumped to more than 48 days in northern Indiana.

Roudebush spokeswoman Julie Webb said the hospital is contacting everyone on its electronic waiting list to determine if it can see them sooner. If the hospital can't offer them appointments within 30 days, it will offer to direct them to care elsewhere in the community.

She also said the hospital was starting Saturday clinics in an effort to see new primary care patients more rapidly.

Webb said the figure of 173 people believed to have fallen through the cracks in Indianapolis was misleading, because it simply represents the number of veterans who have signed up for the system.

Tom Bratcher, Indiana state commander for the Disabled American Veterans, said he had not seen the audit yet, but added, "It's my belief that they're kind of understaffed."

Democratic Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly called the 90-day waiting period "absolutely unacceptable."

"We need to give VA medical facilities the tools they need to bring down wait times and improve care, and we need to hold VA officials responsible for any misconduct," Donnelly said in a statement.

Webb and Mike Brady, spokesman for the Northern Indiana VA system, said the long wait times for new patients stem in part from the extra time initial appointments require, which makes them harder to fit into the schedule.

Webb and Brady also noted that their facilities have difficulty attracting primary care physicians, who prefer to set up shop in the private market.

"We admit we need additional capacity and we are working on that," Webb said.

Nationally, the audit found more than 57,000 patients were still waiting for initial medical appointments after 90 days, and an additional 64,000 who enrolled in the VA health care system in the last decade had never been seen.


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